Airbnb squares off against hosts in personal information battle

Short-term rental group says hosts agreed to allow data handover

From left: Eric Schneiderman and Airbnb founders Nathan Blecharczyk, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky
From left: Eric Schneiderman and Airbnb founders Nathan Blecharczyk, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky

Lawyers for Airbnb this week asked a Manhattan Supreme Court judge to partially dismiss claims filed by a group of hosts seeking to block the handover of personal data by the short-term rental site.

The group, called New Yorkers Making Ends Meet in the Sharing Economy, filed suit early last month seeking to stop Airbnb from turning the confidential information over to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office. The Attorney General originally issued subpoenas to Airbnb in 2013, ordering the company to turn over the data.

In its filing, Airbnb noted that it fought hard to narrow the scope of the AG’s original subpoena, which sought personal and financial information on more than 15,000 hosts based in New York. The firm also noted that hosts using the service signed an agreement that Airbnb would comply with the release of data requested through a court order or other legal proceeding.

“Under the narrowed subpoena, we were required to provide anonymized data about hosts in New York,” Airbnb said in a statement released through a spokesperson. “The subpoena gives the Attorney General’s office one year to review the anonymized data and compel information from us about individualized hosts who may be subject to further investigation.”

Attorney Adam Leitman Bailey, who representing the plaintiffs in this case, claims that Airbnb promised to protect the privacy of its hosts.

“It was shocking and devious after being told privately and publicly by Airbnb that they would simply bring in the government and stay out of the case for them to move the court to turn over my clients’ names,” he told The Real Deal. “If Airbnb simply wanted to follow the law, they would manipulate their computer application and make it impossible for New York City members to rent for less than 30 days.”

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Airbnb, based in San Francisco, offers a home sharing service that connects travelers to homeowners and renters willing to rent out their space for short-term visits. The service is offered in 190 countries worldwide and has hosted more than 17 million travelers.

The company has run afoul of regulators in New York, where a 2011 law banned rentals of fewer than 30 days in apartment buildings and other residences.

These rentals were used frequently by landlords during the Great Recession to generate incremental income in condo buildings with unsold apartments, as well as condos rented out by absentee owners.

The Oct. 1 filing comes a day after the AG asked the court to order the Airbnb hosts to hand over the data, and also asked the court to not allow Airbnb to get out of the lawsuit.

According to AG data obtained by The Real Deal, the hosts on the Attorney General’s list have made more than $60 million on their apartments over the past three years, with the average host making about $500,000 per year. Data shows that the least prolific member of the group fighting the subpoenas controls more than 10 individual apartments.

However, Bailey says that a majority of his clients are owners of SROs.

A spokesperson for the AG declined to comment.